I Love This Piece!

What is really going on in our brains when we stare into a masterpiece?

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You know that feeling when you see a breathtaking piece of artwork? Something that just stops you in your tracks and makes you feel some type of way.

Maybe it’s a myriad of colors strewn haphazardly about a canvas. Or a lifelike depiction of an immigrant family from a previous era. It’s probably not a banana duck-taped to a wall, but hey, whatever floats your brain boat. 

Regardless of the medium, we’ve probably all seen a piece of art in our lifetimes that we were drawn to, sometimes inexplicably. Why is that? What is going on in our brains when we gaze at a masterpiece?

We know that our brains are wired to recognize familiarity and discern meaning from patterns and incomplete information. Looking at art stimulates the brain and activates our instinct to organize patterns and make sense of shapes. 

Apart from the stimulation of perceiving patterns, the brain actually goes through physical changes when we look at a beautiful art piece. Using an MRI, studies show that blood flow to the brain increases by up to 10% when looking at art that appeals to us. This is the equivalent brain response to looking at someone that you love. The activity occurs in the part of the brain responsible for feelings of pleasure and desire.

The next time someone says, “Wow, I really love that piece!”, they might not be exaggerating. 

Another natural response our brains have to art is called embodied cognition. Neurons inside our brains translate what we see in artwork into actual emotions, by imagining ourselves as a part of the piece.

“Art accesses some of the most advanced processes of human intuitive analysis and expressivity and a key form of aesthetic appreciation is through embodied cognition, the ability to project oneself as an agent in the depicted scene,” said Christopher Tyler, director of the Smith-Kettlewell Brain Imaging Center.

This also helps to explain why our tastes in art vary so widely. The brain draws on all of your memories and previous experiences when going through the process of embodied cognition. Who knows, maybe the couple who bought that banana taped to the wall had some really fond memories of bananas.

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